Authorities Investigating Reports of Migrant Men Trying to Buy Children from Single Mothers in Mexican Shelters So They Can Enter the U.S.

Antonia Portillo, 44, along with her two children, Jon and Christian, walk back to the Embajadores shelter where they have been staying in Tijuana on June 27, 2019. Portillo has submitted her paperwork with the U.S. asking for asylum in the U.S. and is currently waiting in Tijuana for her federal court date scheduled next month in July. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Some migrants in Tijuana are trying to purchase children from vulnerable single mothers in local shelters so they can more easily cross into the United States, according to shelter directors, migrants and Tijuana law enforcement authorities.

Migrants in Tijuana shelters said they are alarmed after reports of single mothers being approached by groups of men who have offered to buy children to improve their chances of safely crossing into the United States.

A decades-old legal document, known as the Flores agreement, says migrant children should only be held briefly in U.S. border custody, which often means they are released, along with the parent or guardian with whom they crossed while they wait for their asylum cases to make their way through clogged immigration courts.

Typically, when migrants are apprehended at the border with their children they are held in custody for a few days before they are released. Single adults who cross the border can face months in detention.

U.S. border authorities have been warning since June 2018 about people fraudulently using children who aren’t theirs to pose as family units and gain entry into the United States, a claim that critics said was overblown.

But now, authorities in Tijuana are warning migrant mothers to keep their children close by and supervised, after reports of men offering to purchase migrant children in order to cross.

“I can’t go to work because I can’t take my eyes off my boys,” said Antonia Portillo Cruz, a 44-year-old migrant from Honduras, who said the men have been targeting the shelter where she stays. She said she witnessed some of the men asking women in the shelter about purchasing their children, but none of them made the offer directly to her.

Portillo said the groups of men have been approaching the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus shelter in Tijuana and offering about 7,000 pesos, or $350, to purchase a child to cross into the United States.

She said she fears the requests and the offers of money will turn into demands or kidnappings. Portillo said she never lets her two boys, aged 10 and 8, out of her sight.

“They want to rob our kids so they can cross into the United States,” she said angrily.

A spokesman for the Tijuana municipal police confirmed the reports and said federal authorities are investigating. The case was first reported by Tijuana journalists Yolanda Morales and Yuriria Sierra for Imagen TV.

Pastor Gustavo Banda, a Tijuana shelter director, said families at the shelter are terrified and feel forced to keep all their children locked inside at all times.

“These are cases of desperation,” said Banda, who runs the Embajadores shelter. “Of course, the women have not accepted any of these offers, but clearly this is a huge concern because of the danger to the children.”

Banda now keeps a chain lock around the fence to his shelter and said staff does not let the children outdoors unsupervised. He said some men, whom he believes are from Haiti or Central America, are also offering money to single mothers to pair up as a fake family unit and cross together.

It is unclear whether the men approaching the shelter are trying to use the children for their own passage or for others who wish to cross.

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SOURCE: The Seattle Times; The San Diego Union-Tribune, Wendy Fry